Skip To Main Content

Yorkshire Insight

The “Wonder” of Learning Through Play

Posted: October 17, 2018 | Author: Sally Waterfield, Yorkshire Academy Pre-K Teacher

Sally Waterfield

As an early years trained teacher, I have always had a great interest in the benefits of play within a school setting. Both the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recognize the need for play as an essential part of early childhood education. Research studies are also showing that play-based learning enhances children’s academic learning outcomes and that play based programs for young children build resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations.

Children are naturally motivated to play. A play-based program builds on this motivation, using play as a context for learning. In this context, children can explore, experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways.

A play-based approach involves both child-initiated and teacher-supported learning. The teacher encourages children’s learning and inquiry through interactions that aim to stretch their thinking to higher levels. For example, when young children play with blocks they are having hands-on experiences with concepts like fractions, construction and gravity as well as creative thinking. In this learning experience, a teacher can pose questions that encourage problem solving and prediction. Research shows that children who build with blocks in preschool have better math grades in middle and high school than children who did not (Journal of Research in Childhood Education. Volume 15, 2001).

Children experience high self-esteem when absorbed in their own play-based learning. Play is enjoyable and rewards a child with a great sense of self achievement. A recent example of this took place in my classroom when I was observing a group of students who, whilst creating rocket ships with magnetic tiles, by chance discovered that the tiles could also stick to the metal legs of our classroom tables. I was filled with joy and wonder observing as the children made this discovery and their excitement as they took control of this learning experience and became pioneers of all things magnetic in the classroom! Additionally, this provided a platform for further teaching opportunities as the children were subsequently introduced to new scientific vocabulary to support this learning encounter. Observing their imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm and persistence was clear evidence of their positive attitude to learning and it brought me great joy.

So how can we, as parents and teachers, ensure that this type of play-based learning is supported without detracting from the importance of discovery and wonder? Well, I recently learned of a strategy developed through the High Scope approach that can help an adult to make an informed decision as to how and if you should enter the play. The High Scope approach to learning was developed in the 1970s and emphasises “active participatory learning.” Active learning means students have direct, hands-on experiences with people, objects, events, and ideas ( Through this approach, practitioners have developed a strategy called S.O.U.L: Silence, Observe, Understand and Listen. Through this supportive climate for learning, the children and adults have genuine shared control. The adult highly values the child’s active learning and they become authentic play partners with the child, following their interests.

What I particularly like about this approach is how transferable it is for parents to use, as well as teachers, when observing their own child/children playing at home. Sometimes we can feel the need to “jump in” and guide a play opportunity towards a learning outcome that we want to achieve; but often, holding back and observing for just a few moments can allow us to see how we can further develop the experience for the child.

I would like to end with one of my favourite quotes from American author Diane Ackerman:

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”

In a fast-moving world of technology and media, we need to remember the important influence that real, hands-on play based experiences have on our children’s developing brains and the value of exploring first-hand the world around them. Let’s keep play central to learning!